Ichigenme, Vols. 1 and 2

Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law (801 Media) wasn’t the first yaoi work by Fumi Yoshinaga that I read, but it’s my favorite, and it has all of the qualities I use to define what I classify as the best of that category.

It’s about law-school students, and, by that, I don’t mean that it features characters who are identified as law-school students. In some romance stories, regardless of the sexual orientation of the protagonists, their professions are identified as a matter of course. For all careers matter to the narrative, they could just as well be identified as working in weaponized genetics or unicorn husbandry. But Yoshinaga has her characters spend a lot of time in the classroom, and she’s given a lot of thought to the culture of a law school.

Hard-working, average-income Tamiya and lazy, elite Tohdou are in the same seminar. It’s a notoriously easy course, so it’s generally populated with the entitled spawn of politicians, business magnates, and celebrities. They’re the kind of people who are just vamping until their inevitable success, because they know it’s ensured, relatively speaking. Tamiya’s success is equally assured, but that’s because he’s brilliant and he works hard. His classmates view him as a kind of charming oddity, and you can tell he bristles at their condescension as much as their stupidity.

So the series is also about class distinctions, which isn’t unfamiliar territory for Yoshinaga. It was the crux of conflict in Gerard and Jacques (Blu), and caste inequities inform virtually every page of Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz). The injustices of the smug and privileged don’t sour the good times, though, and Yoshinaga doesn’t sermonize. The elites are basically a benign but useless subspecies that’s good for a laugh, though their systemized superiority can certainly be damaging. Class differences in romantic fiction aren’t uncommon, but they can be as cosmetic as careers. Yoshinaga goes deeper, and she earns laughs in the process.

So that’s two things that Ichigenme is actually about aside from a romantic relationship, and they bring me to another good-yaoi differential in evidence: there’s a female character of consequence in the series. Terada is as good a student as Tamiya, and her pedigree is about equal to his. Tereda gives Tamiya a partner in eye-rolling, and she lets Yoshinaga work in some stinging examples of sexist double standards that successful women have to endure. Tereda is a more driven, polished version of Haruka and Tammy in Antique Bakery (Digital Manga), and her scenes have sly, satirical power. That she vanishes after the first volume isn’t really a problem; that’s another pattern of Yoshinaga yaoi, and it’s better than no representation at all of the other 50-plus percent of the population.

It’s starting to sound like Ichigenme is seinen slice-of-life, so I should hasten to mention that the core relationship between Tamiya and Tohdou is urgent and persuasive, and it’s barely formulaic at all. Okay, so Tamiya has never thought of himself as gay, and Tohdou’s attentions surprise him. That’s one of the most common starting points there is. But Tamiya actually goes through an evolution instead of a spontaneous conversion. It takes more than one drunken kiss for Tamiya’s whole life to change, and it’s quite charming to see Tohdou’s combination of patience and determination in wooing his overly serious classmate. (One of his techniques is cooking for Tamiya, another always-welcome feature of Yoshinaga’s manga.)

Even though Tohdou is refreshingly secure in his sexual orientation, he’s got his own insecurities and issues. Tamiya isn’t the only one moving toward maturity and understanding. Yoshinaga is very careful with the emotional progression of both of her protagonists; it’s not a matter of one catching up to the other. And their milestones feel like actual milestones rather than foregone conclusions.

The last distinguishing factor if this title is that it’s very, very sexy. The erotic moments she portrays aren’t pristine; they can be awkward and ridiculous and still erotic at the same time. Yes, Tamiya and Tohdou are very attractive, but they don’t reach the point of magical beings, and their sex scenes have a kind of credibility that make them even more urgent and effective. (This is much more evident in the second volume. Lots and lots of sex in the second volume is another thing you grow accustomed to with Yoshinaga yaoi.)

So, that’s my list of the things I love about Ichigenme. It has credible, mature characters with rounded lives. It takes sexual identity seriously. It’s funny. It’s sexy. It’s pretty much everything I hope for when I pick up yaoi.

(This review is part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast.)

 

Comments

  1. Ichigenme is my favorite of Yoshinaga’s yaoi as well, so I was thrilled to see that you’d decided to review it this morning!

    I’m especially pleased with this: “Yes, Tamiya and Tohdou are very attractive, but they don’t reach the point of magical beings, and their sex scenes have a kind of credibility that make them even more urgent and effective.” Though the genre is full of sex scenes, I think most of them are pretty lazy and actually get in the way of the story more rather than enhancing it. But Yoshinaga’s sex scenes are never superfluous. They are always important to the story and to the characters, and they read… well, exactly as you describe them here. I’m always bothered when someone dismisses the second volume of this series (or any of her yaoi series) as “just sex” as though that was understood to be inherently worthless and shallow, when really, Yoshinaga’s sex scenes are anything but.

  2. Ichigenme is my favorite Yoshinaga yaoi, my fourth favorite Yoshinaga work, and my favorite yaoi. I would love to see a version of volume 1 written from Tohdou’s point of view.

    For some reason, one of my favorite parts is from vol. 2, when Tamiya is asking Tohdou how much money to give as a wedding gift. Relationships aren’t all drama and sex, people! Sometomes (mostly) you have really boring conversations about things like gift-giving.

    • David Welsh says:

      I love the gift advice scene. In addition to being everything you said it was, it’s also perfectly in character, particularly Tamiya’s blunt, left-handed gratitude. I’m chuckling just thinking about it.

  3. Great review, David! You did a wonderful job highlighting the strengths of this series.

    It’s been a while since I read Ichigenme, but I remember being slightly let down by the second volume’s heavier emphasis on straight-up sex scenes rather than romantic tension, self-examination, and social politics, (which were still present, though the ratio just seemed a bit off) but that’s a pretty minor complaint. The first volume was so good I suppose there wasn’t much room for improvement.

    • David Welsh says:

      It’s very strange, but I had the same reaction to the second volume when I first read it. On subsequent readings, it amazed me to realize that Yoshinaga made all those sex scenes very purposeful in terms of showing the evolution of their relationship. It’s very subtle, and I missed it the first time around, because I missed all of the other kinds of elements that made the first volume so special. But really, give it a re-read and see if it’s a little different for you this time around.

      And thanks for the kind words!

      • Okay, well it makes me feel less nit-picky/curmudgeonly that I was not alone in that initial reaction. Part of the problem might have been how my experience of the narrative trajectory was kind of disjointed. It was one of those situations where you buy one volume of a series to test the waters, read the first half of the book, think to yourself, “Ohmahgawd, this is so good. Must order next volume!” –wait a week or so– and finally get to finish the story only to realize that you’ve forgotten several particulars from the beginning, but sheer momentum and curiosity push you to finish anyhow. You know… that common situation.

        All this to say that even though I already really like this series I will definitely give it a re-read now that you’ve pointed out the light of cohesion at the end of the tunnel.

  4. Huh, Yoshinaga really does amp up the sex on second volumes, doesn’t she? Hahaha, I hadn’t really consciously realized that before.
    I mentioned this in my write up today of my favorite characters, of which Tohdou is one, but I love the way Tohdou treats Tamiya with such care. He gently wipes semen from his face, cleans him up, and tucks him into bed. It’s so incredibly sweet.


Trackbacks

  1. [...] Manga | Manga bloggers are celebrating Fumi Yoshinaga in this month’s Manga Moveable Feast, a sort of bloggers’ round robin, and David Welsh kicks things off with a review of a yaoi manga that avoids most of the pitfalls of the genre, Yoshnaga’s Ichigenme: The First Course Is Civil Law. [The Manga Curmudgeon] [...]

  2. [...] From David Welsh at The Manga Curmudgeon (volumes 1 and 2) [...]

  3. [...] From David Welsh (the Manga Curmudgeon), a review of one of my favorite Yoshinaga titles: Ichigenme…The First Class is Civil Law volumes 1 and 2 [...]

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